"DON'T SAY 'DWARF,'" Little Little's mother tells her. "Call yourself a little person or a midget or a diminutive. Anything but 'dwarf.'"

Little Little La Belle has long blond hair and neatly tanned arms. Her white cotton dresses are made to order. She drives around town, smoking cigarettes, in her custom blue Volvo and everybody knows she's one of the two best writers in the senior class at La Belle High. But Little Little faces facts. She is 3 feet 3 inches tall. She calls herself a dwarf.

M. E. Kerr has written well and often before about the sweet miseries of first love and coming of age. In this book, her eighth novel for young adults, those familiar problems come from a new perspective -- less than four feet off the ground. It is the place of children, a place where phone booths and water fountains are beyond reach and back yard swimming pools seem as vast as the sea. It is the place of circus freaks, a place where strangers feel free to stare and point and pinch your cheek. It is especially hard place to be when you're 17-going-on-18 years old.

Kerr's two narrators, Little and a young male dwarf named Sydney Cinnamon, have other obstacles to face as well. There is Little Little's family life -- her eccentric, tomboy sister, her tippling mother, her overprotective father. There are Sydney's physical defects -- his hunchback, his bad legs, his crooked tooth. He is definitely not "p.f." (perfectly formed) and therefore definitely not the kind of dwarf that Little Little's mother has in mind for her daughter.

What Mama La Belle does have in mind is marriage, and her candidate for son-in-law is the famous red-haired midget evangelist, Little Lion. Little Lion wears snazzy white suits, drives a Mercedes convertible and is about as p.f. as can be. He and Sydney vie for Little's little heart and some fairly silly stuff ensues -- spiked drinks, giraffes delivered by taxi, and a host of hallelujahs from Little Lion. The turning point comes at a dwarf banquet in honor of Little Little's 18th brithday and it involves a gooey white cake and a pint-sized vamp who calls herself Dora the Dancing Lettue Leaf. It's cartoon material, it's a Little Rascals extrvaganza, and none of it matters much. Because the real story this book has to tell lies in the characters of Sydney and Little Little and in the way they cope with their affliction.

M. E. Kerr writes mostly about likeable outcasts -- wry bookish kids who will never be part of the parade but who see it all the better from the sidelines. Sydney and Little Little are no exception. They may be small, but their eyesight's keen. And from where they stand, any passing parade looks about like the next -- big and boring, plodding and wholesome as a herb of cattle. What the dwarfs would like to see are different things, freakish things, things that are like themselves somehow. When they visit the library they choose books about dwarfs. When they go the movies they prefer monster shows. And when Sydney Cinnamon takes a job, he dresses up as a cockroach and appears in commercials for an exterminating company.

"I decided to be something people don't like instinctively and make them like it," he explains to Little Little. "Something bizarre like me. If I'd have been something besides a roach, I'd have been an alligator or a snake. Something people look at and go "Yeck!' just because of how it looks and not for any other reason. If I'd been a vegetable. I'd have been a piece of slimy okra."

This is a story about courage and tolerance and growing up without growing bigger. Kerr does not preach nor ask for pity. She details the everyday complexities of the dwarfs' lives -- big dogs, booster chairs, unwieldy forks and spoons. She shows just how they eat and drive and kiss. It's disquieting to consider that this is almost side show stuff, that a part of this gook will appeal to the gawker, the cheek-pincher in us all. But, at the end, of course, a side show is alway a sham, a place or actors and optical illusion. M E. Kerr doesn't stoop to tricks. Her dwarfs are real and sharp as nuggets. They are small and steady as bookends. They are dwarfs who simply call themselves dwarfs.